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Question: "How do I keep cats out of my plants?"
by Fred Davis, MG, Hill Gardens of Maine (To view other articles, click:
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A new product—it keeps cats out of houseplants—and it's entertaining, too!

 

Welcome through Fred's Garden Gate! Here's another question recently received in email from a Mainer who is faced with, I fear, a common dilemma: 

Subj: My Cat. "I just recently discovered that you have a website which interests me greatly. I've been searching but don't seem to find anything on how to keep cats away from houseplants. Mine, since the day we brought her home when she was about ten weeks old, attacks my houseplants! She mostly goes for the soil but also the leaves. I have had to put all my plants in one room and shut the door to keep her away. I love plants so I wonder if you have a solution. I recently bought some cat grass which I haven't dared to try yet, being afraid that she'll tip it over and spill the soil. So, if you have any advice, it would be much appreciated! Thank you. Cheryl."

Cats! Actually, Cheryl, you may already have the only solution: put all your plants in one room and shut the door. I might add that a sturdy padlock opened only by a complex key would insure that your clever and determined young feline cannot gain access. . .unless she's a Siamese. In that case, all hope is almost surely lost!

In my many years of life-experience—much of it enjoyed in the company of felines—the one constant that precedes all others is the ever-present and disappointing fact that there is very little any human can do with an aberrant cat.

Having said that, it must be admitted that cats have an uncanny instinct, and an inherent perception of their own physiological needs. So, here I go, off on a rather wild and speculative diagnosis: Is it possible that your cat's diet may be lacking in one or the other mineral which it (or its mysterious mind) perceives might be available in potting soil or leaves? That being the case—and this is really stretching—perhaps a vitamin/mineral supplement suitable for cats would be in order. And go ahead with the "cat-grass" but put something really heavy in the bottom of the pot for stability. You might well consider placing that grassy-plant near her usual sleeping place—so it'll be the first thing she sees on arising, or you might watch her normal pattern of attacking plants, and place "her" grassy-plant in the immediate path of that normal pattern.

Is it possible that she's trying to use potting soil as "potty" soil? Cats'll do that if their regular potty is just simply too totally disgusting. If that were the case, the solution is revealed by logic and a feeling of guilt.

Another possibility: there may be tiny, flying insects on or near your plants—fungus gnats or shore flies—the presence of which fascinates your furry little sharp-eyed friend. Perhaps not a likely scenario, but worth further investigation methinks. Even those thoroughly disgusting and clumsy cluster-flies in winter windows would draw most active cats to sills festooned with plants.

Yet another possibility: boredom. Cats normally sleep away about 80% of their lives. When awake, they seem dedicated to making up for lost time, and often launch into what most people label "cat-fits" of undisciplined, chaotic (and unbridled) destruction. Appropriate "toys" on the floor—at the other end of the house—might occupy her little mind and "wear" her out before she spots the plants.

Despite their tenacity and fervor, however, cats cannot abide a scent of the essential oils of citrus, a little-known fact that may work to your advantage. Most pet stores sell repellants. An aerosol of citrus-based material is often used to prevent catly excursions onto furniture and away from outdoor shrubbery. Perhaps—if used judiciously—it might keep your cat away from "her" plants. Be very cautious about getting the aerosol onto tender houseplant leaves or you might see chemical damage worse than the existing cat-damage. A possible option would be to place some orange- or lemon-peel shavings on the soil surface. They'll lose their effect in a day or two but, if you stay on the offensive, your cat may develop a new—more acceptable—pattern of behavior.

As with all things related to feline behavior and personality, you are just starting out along a lengthy road of trial and error, ending (hopefully) in well-earned experience. Patience, of course, is prime...but so also is persistence. Even if all efforts are futile in that process of attempting to adjust behavior, you will doubtless enjoy her antics for years to come.

Finally, if she were my cat, I'd. . .I'd. . .I'd. . .probably either bite the bullet and relinquish full control of all houseplants; or give up and keep a broom and dustpan handy.

A RECENT SEQUEL...(5/29/2001)

Tod, a recent visitor asked this related question: "I just read your article on cats and houseplants. My cats are using my neighbor's garden for a cat box. She [my neighbor] tried putting chicken wire over it [the garden} and she tried cayenne pepper. Neither worked very well. I love my neighbors and my cats and must find a solution. My cats have a cat box and use it sometimes. I clean it often but I guess they prefer the dirt. I also think it's another cat, not mine but I could be wrong. Either way, I would like to help the neighbors. Thanks, Tod."

Here's my response: Tod...Thanks for your question. I'm sure that practically anything you attempt—to prevent cats from using garden soil instead of their litter box—will be either deeply discouraging, frustrating, expensive, terminal or, if nothing is done at all, abrasive on relationships. Terror (brooms, rocks, screaming) could be applied to offending cats but I'm guessing that would be going too far in the direction of abuse...not to mention propriety.

There is a household/garden aerosol product available in most garden centers, large hardware stores, and pet centers that is supposed to repel animals—including cats. I've tried it....powerful and somewhat offensive "citrus" odor that they eventually become accustomed to. It might work long enough to redirect a cat's habits to another arena.

They dislike walking on crinkled cellophane and aluminum foil.....but that's not too practical, and even less attractive. A very coarse stone or bark mulch might be an unpleasant "crust" to paw through....but if the odor of urine is already there, most cats (and all the neighbor's cats for miles around) will consistently return to the scene of the crime, mulch or not.

One thing I haven't tried but which might be a pattern-breaker: they REALLY dislike getting wet; a carefully-placed series of small sprinklers all controlled by a single faucet could be turned on at the peak of each offense. That would mean constant diligence—and it might be accompanied by a volunteer clanging a couple of pans together or pelting the miscreant with rolled-up newspaper "balls"—or both. The combination might (might) leave the impression that every time he/she piddles in THAT place, all heck breaks loose. "Well!...Think I'll go pee somewhere else!"

Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion and Winslow, Maine, offers a nifty little battery operated electronic device called "ScareCrow" that attaches to a garden hose, incorporates sound, movement and a stiff blast of water to repel just about anything bigger than a robin—in a hurry. Go to www.johnnyseeds.com and type scarecrow into the word search on the left.

Short of the above, I'm afraid I know of no other way—except possibly a net and a trip to the local animal shelter—unacceptable for all, I'm also sure. Cats wouldn't be too fond of that approach, either.

Cats is cats is cats..... It's what cats do..... As cat "owners" across the globe have known (and been forced to endure) for centuries, it is our destiny and obligation to adjust and acquiesce to their demands. Unfortunately, for us mere mortals, all cats realize that too.

Good Luck.....and try to enjoy your gardening experience with cats.


10/9/2005 — "Loulou" adds these additional comments in an email (Thank you, Louise!):

"I have 3 solutions that work to keep cats out of houseplants. 

1.— I put large gravel over the earth. It keeps the soil moist and the cats away from spreading the earth all over my floor. They can't dig in the gravel...it is too heavy for them.

2.— The gravel solved the problem for one plant but then I bought more plants and they made a mess (I have 3 cats). Someone told me to try Gold Bond medicated powder. Well, I bought some and sprinkled it on the bottom of the plants and that was a success. The cats do not like the smell as it is strong on their nose. They stay away from my plant.

3.— I had heard of another solution and tried it and it worked too. I put mothballs on top of the soil and, yes, that works too...but I do not like the smell of mothballs but outside that is a perfect solution.

Have a great day and enjoy your plants and your cats.  Louise"

(I'll add only that the practice of scattering mothballs around the garden, while doing so may deter the presence of — and digging by — most small animals, the practice has the potential for unnecessary and easily avoidable soil/groundwater/environmental contamination. Admittedly, it would probably take a lot of mothballs to cause significant contamination since the chemical component is volatile...meaning it is released [evaporated, so to speak] into the atmosphere where it is presumed to be dissipated quickly and harmlessly by the wind. No thanks...I'll stick with an enduring "general rule" — If something has an objectionable or offensive odor...it is entirely possible that it just might result in an equally or worse objectionable or offensive unanticipated side-effect down the road. Oh...and I would never apply or bury mothballs beneath the soil surface...like around planted bulbs, into ant nests ,or down "critter" burrows.)


1/14/07 Cats in Houseplants....A clever solution to the problem (Thank you, LaVonne!):

"I have an older male cat who from time to time went to the bathroom in my potted plants.  I took long bamboo sticks like for shish kabobs [fondue sticks] and put 20 or so in my plant so the tips were sticking up.  This caused him to not be able to find a comfortable place to go.  It never hurt him as he was smart enough to not get stuck.  He eventually stopped trying.  I removed the sticks (especially when company was coming) and all is well.  I have had to put them in one other time since then but now have been good for a few years.


5/17/07 More Tips for keeping 'em out of the pots....(Thanks to Steven!)"

"Just a note on the subject of cats getting into plants. I've found that by putting pine cones into my plants that my cat's completely and immediately stopped trying to go potty in my plants. we have an abundance of pine cones in the mid-west which I leave outside in the sun for a week or so to make sure that there are no bugs and that they are dry before bringing them inside, you can also find them at craft stores if you haven't any pine trees locally. Cheers! Steven"

('Morning, Steven...Thanks for your input.  I've heard of using pinecones and I'm sure they'd work well. I've also seen decorative seashells, golfballs and "cute" little ceramic do-dads for the same purpose.....and have heard of people using cut-to-size pieces of astro-turf plastic "carpeting" that, from a distance, looks like well-manicured lawn.  We have two cats...and a hibiscus in a large container on our sun porch that we've "decorated"  with 3" to 4" surf-polished beach pebbles. Perfect for us because the stones match the color of the tub. How good is that!?  The list of possibilities is nearly endless and limited only by our imaginations.)

Something new in the marketplace (12/18/07)

I don't know why someone hasn't thought of this before!

Attractive designs of pebbles, mulch, leaves or weathered planking have been printed on waterproof corrugated material that's pre-perforated and slit to easily fit around the stem of a large potted plant (the size cats love to take unfair advantage of). And...it's really fun to watch the comical looks of  consternation as the cat tries desperately to scratch her way through! We tried it...and it really works. No more specimen plants that smell like a cat box!

They're called Dirty Little Cover-Ups — find out more and order online here.


Additional Resources on the same subject:  "Critters" in home and garden (FAQ)

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